Why isn’t Ignatius Cardinal Kung recognized as a saint?

Bishop Kung was put on trial in 1960 and disappeared from public view until 1985. During his many years of imprisonment, he suffered the kind of inhuman living conditions and mistreatment that are common in Communist prisons. He died on March 12, 2000.

Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei (1901-2000), Bishop of Shanghai, in a 1949 photo. (Image: Wikipedia); right: St. Ignatius Cathedral in Xujiahui, Shanghai

In 1985, Jaime Cardinal Sin, archbishop of Manilla, Philippines, visited China. As part of his “friendship visit,” as the Chinese government called it, Cardinal Sin requested permission to visit his fellow bishop, Ignatius Kung, who had been imprisoned by the Communists since 1955.

The Communists, surprisingly, agreed. The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association arranged a banquet, and both men were invited—although they were placed at opposite ends of a long table. With almost two dozen Communist officials in between the Philippine archbishop and the Chinese bishop, it was clear that they would never be allowed to speak in private. Ignatius Kung had not been seen in public for twenty-five years, and everyone wondered if he had been affected by decades of imprisonment.

To lighten the tense mood at the dinner, Cardinal Sin invited everyone present to sing. When it was Bishop Kung’s turn, he stood up, looked directly at Cardinal Sin, and sang the once-familiar Latin hymn, “Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram edificabo ecclesiam meam.” This hymn famously quotes Matthew 16:18, which states, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my Church.”

Since the Communists had imprisoned Bishop Kung precisely because of his obedience to the pope, everyone in the room—and soon in the world—knew that life in a Communist prison had not broken the faith of this heroic man.

Who was Ignatius Kung? Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei was born in 1901 in Tangmiqiao Village, China, in a family that had been Catholic for at least five generations. He was given a typical Chinese education as well as a good Catholic education, and he learned European languages in high school. According to an ancient Chinese custom, his family had arranged a marriage for him when he was very young. He broke off that engagement as a teenager when he recognized God’s call to be a priest.

After ordination in 1930, Ignatius served as a teacher and headmaster at various schools. During China’s war with Japan, he protected students’ lives by evacuating his school, and he directed efforts to care for the wounded following a bombardment of the city. While he was headmaster of a school in Shanghai, the number of students tripled over nine years, and his school became known as one of the best in Shanghai. Clearly, Father Kung was a born leader as well as a devout Catholic priest.

When the People’s Liberation Army “liberated” Shanghai in 1949, the Communist government took control of every aspect of Chinese life. Communists were not pleased that there was a strong, vibrant Catholic Church in China. They soon determined that every European, particularly every Catholic and Christian missionary, was an “imperialist threat” and should be forcibly expelled.

Persecution of Christians steadily increased from that point on, expanded, and became more brutal. In 1951, somewhere between 100,000 (the official number) and 1,000,000 (the unofficial number) men and women in China were killed in front of cheering crowds for the crime of being Catholics or “imperialists”. Clergy were bullied, tortured, and arrested on trumped-up charges. The Communists clearly hoped to eliminate all Christian leaders so that it could “re-educate” the laity to their new religion: Communist ideology.

In 1950, Father Kung became the first native-born bishop of Shanghai, as well as apostolic administrator of Soochow and Nanking. In that role, he responded the dangers confronting his flock like a true Catholic shepherd. In 1951, he consecrated his diocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, following the example of Pope Pius XII in 1942. He resisted demands that every member of the Legion of Mary be registered with the government, recognizing this as a first step toward arrests of the Catholic laity. Bishop Kung encouraged his priests to preach the Gospel, regardless of the danger. His priests obeyed, and Masses were packed with obedient Catholics. In 1954, he declared a Marian year in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes. Devotions such as the public recitation of the rosary, Benediction, and processions flourished as ordinary Catholics recognized their need for spiritual protection in the face of the intensifying persecution.

In 1955, the Communist government conducted massive raids on parishes, confiscated church buildings, and arrested Bishop Kung on ridiculous charges. They used constant propaganda, false accusations from apostates, public spectacles, and even claims that it was Catholics themselves who were staging a coup against Kung to try to make him a hated figure in China. Yet only a handful of priests joined the “Catholic” Patriotic Association, the government-controlled church that Communists had created. Every Catholic knew that Ignatius Kung’s chief crime was his refusal to participate in a schismatic act, that is, his refusal to agree to be a leader of a false church in China, one that obeyed the Chinese Communist Party, not the pope.

Bishop Kung was put on trial in 1960 and disappeared from public view until 1985. During his many years of imprisonment, he suffered the kind of inhuman living conditions and mistreatment that are common in Communist prisons. But the bitterest punishment that they inflicted upon him was near total isolation even from other prisoners. Try to imagine what it would be like to know that you could not speak to another Catholic without endangering that person’s health and life.

In 1986, he was released and placed on house arrest. In 1988, he was allowed to travel to Rome, where he learned that Pope John Paul II had made him a cardinal in pectore (in secret) in 1979. Kung died, painfully but peacefully of stomach cancer, in Stamford, Connecticut, on March 12, 2000, at the age of ninety-eight.

Could anyone doubt that Ignatius Kung is a saint in Heaven? Would God do anything other than welcome with open arms such a courageous shepherd who laid down his life for Christ and His Church?

But just as Pope Pius XII’s beatification of earlier Chinese martyrs in 1951 was not well received by the Communist government in the twentieth century, neither would a worldwide recognition of Ignatius Kung be welcomed by the current Communist regime. The people who would suffer most from the ire of the Communist party in China as a result would be the ordinary Chinese Catholics who only want to live their faith in peace.

Obviously, it would require a decision of the Dicastery of the Causes of Saints to permit even the first step in the canonization of Ignatius Kung. It appears that the Vatican has placed the process on a back burner, preferring instead to “dialog” with the Chinese government, specifically through a diplomatic deal. The terms of the agreement between the CCP and the Vatican are still a secret, but it’s clear that this deal attempts to erase the rather sharp line that Cardinal Kung drew between the Catholic Patriotic Association (run by the CCP) and the underground Catholic Church in China, which has remained faithful for seventy years. And that diplomatic agreement, whatever its goals, has not appeared to protect ordinary Chinese Catholics and other Christians from government persecution at all.

However, one of the many reasons that the Church canonizes saints is to encourage Catholics to ask for the intercession of those holy men and women from Heaven. The saints look upon the face of God, and their prayers can help us in our difficulties here on earth, whether we have gotten around to recognizing them as saints or not.

When will Catholics in China be free to practice their faith again? Only God knows, but when that happens, we may find that Ignatius Kung has been interceding for his beloved Chinese Catholics all along, with documented miracles ready and waiting to be recorded by the Vatican. God may be performing great miracles at this very moment in the lives and hearts of the suffering Christians in China.

In the meantime, those of us who live in countries with the freedom to practice our Catholic faith can (privately) ask Ignatius Kung to intercede for all the people of China to know the true freedom that comes only from faith in Jesus Christ. And we can ask God to give us more bishops—all over the world—just like him.

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About Dawn Beutner 65 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of The Leaven of the Saints: Bringing Christ into a Fallen World (Ignatius Press, 2023), and Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year also from Ignatius Press. She blogs at dawnbeutner.com.


  1. If he trusted in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, he was already a saint and heaven is his eternal home.
    Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. Psalm 116:15
    To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints. Romans 1:7
    To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and our: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:2,3
    You may have glossed over these and many other verses in your daily scripture readings.

    to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints

    • I’m not sure what your point is, but canonization doesn’t mean, “Okay, now that you’ve been canonized, you’re in heaven.” Canonization means, “The Church is certain that you are in heaven.”

      Many people who aare in heaven have not been recognized as saints – as for example, those killed for the Faith in China and elsewhere. We don’t know them all by name. That’s why we have All Saints’ Day, to honor all saints, known and unknown.

      And don’t forget Matthew 22:14. Not everybody who is called answers the call.

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